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Some women orgasm during childbirth, study shows

Amid the excruciating pain of childbirth, some women do experience waves of ecstatic pleasure comparable to an orgasm, a new study shows.

The survey, available online May 3 in the journal Sexologies, showed midwives reported witnessing orgasms in about 0.3 percent of births, LiveScience reported.

Conducted by psychologist Thierry Postel of Blainville-sur-Mer in France, the new study contacted 956 midwives who assisted in some 206,000 births in their careers, though only 109 gave complete responses.

Midwives' observations

"Midwives reported 668 cases in which mothers told midwives they'd felt orgasmic sensations in birth. In another 868 cases, midwives said they'd seen mothers demonstrate signs of pleasure during childbirth. Finally, nine mothers completed questionnaires confirming they'd experienced an orgasm during birth," LiveScience cited excerpts from the study.

Postel said the results "established the fact that obstetrical pleasure exists."

He said he focused on midwives instead of doctors or nurses, because midwives witness many births firsthand and are reliable observers.

"(But) it's such a culture where some women actually feel shamed that they have pleasure, because the expectation is pain," Pascali-Bonaro added. "We have to change that."

Physiological response

But Barry Komisaruk, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey who studies orgasm, said such orgasmic or ecstatic births are no surprise, at least anatomically.

Komisaruk said the intense stimulation of the vaginal canal in childbirth may even work to block pain, whether that stimulation is felt as sexual or not.

"It's stimulation of the birth canal, stimulation of the cervix, the vagina and the clitoris and uterine contractions. A lot of women say during sexual orgasms uterine contractions feel pleasurable," Komisaruk told LiveScience.

He added every woman's anatomy is different, so some women may experience pleasure during childbirth while others feel only the pain.

"There are so many factors that could make the difference between a pleasurable response and a terribly stressful, aversive experience that you can't generalize it. There's no reason to try to generalize. Different people have different pain thresholds. Different people have different attitudes. If a woman has a fear of sexuality, if she starts having a pleasurable sensation she may feel this is completely inappropriate psychologically, and that itself could be an aversive effect," he said.

Also, Pascali-Bonaro noted clitoral and nipple stimulation provide pain relief for some women during labor, while some even use vibrators during labor to decrease pain.

Anecdotal reports

LiveScience said anecdotal reports of orgasm during birth had long circulated and detailed in 2009 with the documentary "Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret," directed by childbirth educator Debra Pascali-Bonaro.

Yet, Pascali-Bonaro said people are skeptical of the concept of pleasure during birth, saying the idea of sexual feelings during childbirth is unacceptable.

"People see 'birth' and 'orgasmic' together on paper, and it pushes all their buttons on sexuality," Pascali-Bonaro said.

She added that in the United States, many women give birth in settings where they are not able to move around freely because of fetal monitoring devices and little labor support and where they are not allowed water to drink in case of a C-section.

These limitations make a pleasurable birth experience less likely and less imaginable for women who've had babies, she said.


On the other hand, she said the survey may have underestimated the number of women who had experienced pleasure in birth by asking primarily midwives rather than mothers about their experiences.

In one screening of her film, Pascali-Bonaro said an obstetrician claimed he had never witnessed anything remotely orgasmic in his years of delivering babies.

But three rows behind him, a woman jumped up and told him she gave birth with him three years ago, "and I had a very orgasmic birth, with an orgasm, but what makes you think I would tell you?"

Pascali-Bonaro also said this "should be a performance standard."

Reducing sensitivity to pain

LiveScience said Komisaruk and his colleagues have also found sexual stimulation and orgasm reduce sensitivity to pain.

In 1988, Komisaruk and his co-researchers published a study in the Journal of Sex Research. The study said that when women stimulated their vaginas or clitorises, they became less sensitive to painful stimulation — but not to other tactile stimulation.

In 1990, the researchers followed up with a study that found women in labor had reduced pain sensitivity during labor compared with before and after.

In rats, Komisaruk found vaginal stimulation blocks the release of a pain transmitter called Substance P at the level of the spinal cord.

This means sensory neurons tasked with transmitting their message of "ouch!" to the central nervous system are stymied from the get-go.

"It's an actual physiological, very primordial system of the genital system blocking pain input," Komisaruk said.

Also, two regions of the brain that become active during orgasm, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, are also active during painful experiences.

"There's something very intriguing going on between pain and pleasure," said Komisaruk.

Komisaruk presently holds a patent on the substance that blocks the pain in rats, called vasoactive intestinal peptide.

He said some pharmaceutical companies have shown interest, but none have yet been spend to test the substance for use as a pain medication in humans. — LBG/TJD, GMA News